Mary Corey March

Cultural Fabric Breathes Still

Mixed Media Participatory and Reactive Installation, including motion sensors which activate audio recordings of endangered language speakers and fans, fabric, wood, acrylic signs. 46" x 22" x 36" (2015).

This piece was done in collaboration with Daniel Garcia, engineer and artist.

  • Irish

  • Lowland Scotts

  • Choctaw

  • Poylisher Yiddish

  • Estonian

  • About

    Cultural Fabric Breathes Still uses displaced physical fabric as the displaced cultural fabric of endangered languages. It explores the personal and impersonal- online vs. in person, entombed artifact vs. that living and breathing, and data vs. story.

    As an artist invested in process, the collection of these voices was as interesting as the results, which I presented to mimic the archeological collection process. I restricted myself to only finding speakers who I knew or met online through people I knew.

    There were six other potential speakers where the connection broke: three speakers of three Sami languages, and speakers of Faroese, Seneca, and Awabakal. The Sami speakers had a double language barrier requiring them to translate into Finnish and a Finnish speaker to translate into English over an online conference call. While the friend who connected me was able to translate, the lack of access and ability of the Sami speakers to do a conference call over the internet broke this connection. The friend also suspects cultural reluctance to talk to strangers. The Awabakal and Faroese speakers didn’t have a strong enough social connection over the internet (both speakers were acquaintances of friends rather than very close friends or family of friends). The Seneca speaker had a family crisis.

    Interestingly, three of the languages I did collect were outlawed by a conquering power (Irish, Scots and Choctaw) until they almost died out, while two (Estonian and Yiddish) were languages of the culturally repressed, not generally forbidden but often a secret code under oppression. Each speaker selected untranslatable words that might reveal something of the culture, a personal thought or story, and approved a cultural fabric.

    They are still breathing.


    Text displayed with Cabinet (on plaques to the sides)

    Cultural Fragments (presented in order of acquisition):

    1. Irish. Word(s): Craic

    Area of language’s origin: Ireland

    Birthplace of Speaker: Connemara County Galway Ireland

    Note: The speaker learned the language as part of standard school practice in Ireland (now under fire as “backward”), but indicated that very few people speak it fluently or regularly as a full language. Instead Irish words punctuate English. Irish was banned in schools until 1871 by order of the British government and was stigmatized elsewhere. Only in in remote areas called “the gaeltacht” was Irish spoken by most of the population generation to generation. The speaker’s grandfather spoke some Irish and later became fluent because he was a general practitioner in an area that included gaeltracht. This was also true of the speaker’s uncle, who also meets with other 'gaelgoirs' (lovers of Irish language) to preserve the language.

    Location of speaker at the time of recording: Hanoi, Vietnam.

    Speaker’s Age:

    Recording done over Google Hangouts

    Note: Phone connections were limited, but internet was available. Online calling was only reliable audio contact.

    Artist’s Connection to Speaker: Via artist’s friend from college study abroad program in Aberdeen, Scotland (met 1997, stayed in touch by visit and phone, then Facebook). Speaker is wife of this friend contacted via email and Facebook, no in-person contact at any point.

    Fabric: Wool tweed of any pattern (plaid, herringbone or hound’s-tooth) in muddled reddish browns and greys as requested by speaker.

    Note: Speaker wanted the colors to reflect both the colors of the landscape as she thinks of them and what older people (the sort who speak this language fluently) wear.

    2. Lowland Scots

    Word(s): Shilpit, Gallus

    Note: the artist included two words in this case because the speaker presented both together as opposites. Possible bias on the part of the artist due to artist’s ancestry.

    Area of Language’s Origin: Lowland (Southeastern) Scotland

    Note: In 1709 (before the final Scottish defeat to the English in 1746) the Scottish branch of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (the SSPCK) began a campaign under English royal charter to Anglicize Scotland, forming schools which first taught English alongside Scottish, then banned the use of Scottish. Areas with SSPCK schools mark the decline of Scottish speakers.

    Birthplace of Speaker: Lanark, Scotland

    Location of Speaker at the time of Recording: Shotts, Scotland (15 miles from Lanark)Speaker’s

    Age: 64

    Recording was done by calling a landline phone over Skype. Speaker had difficulty using Skype, Facetime and Google Hangouts. Artist’s Connection to Speaker: Via artist’s friend from college study abroad program in Aberdeen, Scotland (met 1997, one visit, then reconnected years later on Facebook). Speaker is the mother of the friend, asked over phone by daughter, contacted via Facebook by artist, no in-person contact at any point.

    Fabric: Wool Douglas tartan (the clan tartan of the speaker).

    3. Choctaw

    Word(s): Aiokpånchi

    Area of language’s origin: Mississippi River Valley, Southeastern North America.

    Note: Because the Choctaw people were moved to Oklahoma (meaning “red nation in Choctaw”), it now has the greatest concentration of native speakers.Birthplace of Speaker: Silver Spring MarylandNote: While speaker’s grandmother was fluent, she downplayed her cultural identity and language to “fit in” because her own father had been persecuted as a Choctaw and was “unable to get work in the field he wanted”. This meant her children and grandchildren (including the speaker) grew up with only a handful of Choctaw words. The speaker learned more of her language as an adult.

    Location of speaker at the time of recording: Vienna Fairfax VirginiaSpeaker’s Age: 38Recording done over Skype.

    Artist’s Connection to Speaker: Via artist’s friend from college (met in 1997). Speaker is an in-person friend of that college friend, now in touch over Facebook because the artist’s college friend moved away. No in-person contact with artist. Communication over Facebook and Skype only.

    Fabric: This kind of ribbon-work trim is common for ceremonial regalia among the Choctaw people. It is an adaptation of pre-Colonial decorative techniques to the new materials brought by Europeans.This particular pattern is the Mountain pattern, common to Choctaw culture and signifying travel. The Speaker associates it with the travel over the Trail of Tears during the forced migration of the Choctaw people by the US government. In Choctaw culture white signifies warmth, family, home and satisfaction, while red signifies introspection. The Speaker chose the colors to fit the word.

    4. Poylisher YiddishWord(s): Tsufridn

    Area of language’s origin: Poland

    Note: Yiddish began as the language of the Ashkenaz Jews in Central Europe, combining Germanic language with the existing language of the Ashkenazi Jews in the 9th century. Variations of Yiddish have spread all over the world, providing this often-persecuted people with an often essential secret language of their own which is often credited with keeping their culture and committees strong. In recent generations full fluency has declined, though certain words are used within other languages.

    Birthplace of Speaker: Long Island, New York, USA

    Note: The speaker learned little Yiddish growing up. It was spoken by his parents and grandparents growing up, but was used as the secret language of the adults in the family when they didn’t want the children to know what they were saying. He returned to it later in life as a scholar and lover of languages and joined a Yiddish speaking and reading group.Location of speaker at the time of recording: Eugene, Oregon, USASpeaker’s

    Age: 68

    Recording was done by calling a landline phone over Skype. Artist’s Connection to Speaker: via an in-person friend of the artist met in San Francisco sometime between 2004 and 2007. Speaker is the friend’s father. Artist has had no in-person or online contact with the father (skpe/phone only).

    Fabric: A typical “Tallit” prayer shawl in wool (as requested by speaker).

    5. Eesti Keel (Estonian)

    Word(s): Anna leili

    Area of language’s origin: Estonia

    Note: Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union beginning in 1940 (with withdrawal for a period and reoccupation from 1944-1991). Estonian language and culture were discouraged, dissenters executed, monuments destroyed, and infrastructure remapped into Russian (street signs, schools, government agencies, etc.). Birthplace of Speaker: Zeltweg, AustriaNote: The speaker was born to an Estonian refugee mother fleeing the Russian Communist invasion of Estonia alone with two toddler children. She was born prematurely between daily American bombings raids and moved to US in 1950 at the age of five. The speaker grew up speaking Estonian with her mother, as well as Slovenian, German and Austrian in the refugee camp. The speaker learned English in a summer camp during her first summer in the US before starting the first grade as an English speaker.

    Location of speaker at the time of recording: Old Greenwich, CN, USA

    Speaker’s Age: 69

    Recording done in person.

    Artist’s Connection to Speaker: via the artist’s mother, who met the speaker in Newton MA, USA, in 1960 and formed a lifelong friendship beginning over shared bicultural identity. The speaker met the artist in person at birth, is the artist’s godmother and has at least annual in-person contact with the artist.

    Failed connections (in order of first attempt):

    Inari Sami, Northern Finland.

    Connection: via Finnish friend of artist’s from shared performances in San Francisco and Sacramento (met 2013), developed friendship over Facebook. Friend of his from Finland.

    Northern, Skolt, Inari (all three Finnish Sami Languages): Connection: Via Finnish Artist Friend of above Finnish friend, various potential speakers unknown to Artist.

    Failure Hypothesis: In the case of the Sami speakers there were multiple barriers. -a double language barrier required them to translate into Finnish and a Finnish/English speaker to translate into English over an online conference call. -a weak social connection the friend of the artist is relatively recent and not a strong regular in-person connection as yet. The friend of friend connection is another layer of weakness in the chain. -a cultural barrier in that Finns tend to be “a shy people” (suggested by the original Finnish friend connection).

    Seneca (Language of the Seneca, one of the five Iroquois tribes of North America), first spoken between the Genesee River and Canandaigua Lake in what is now New York.

    Connection: via the artist’s mother. Speaker is a colleague of artist’s mother. Introduced over email, no in-person contact between artist and speaker.Failure

    Hypothesis: At first she was involved in a major project with little time to contribute. More recently she had a family crisis which is demanding all of her time. Faroese, Faroe Islands, Denmark. Connection: via a close friend of the artist’s met in San Francisco. Friend met the speaker on vacation in Iceland a few years ago and kept in touch over Facebook.Failure Hypothesis: the social connection was too weak to get a positive response to the project.

    Awabakal (also Awabagal).

    Australian Aboriginal language of the Awabakal people spoken around Lake Macquarie and Newcastle in what is now New South Wales.

    Connection: via an Australian friend the artist met in person in San Francisco in 2002 who returned home to Australia. Periodic contact over Facebook and visits to San Francisco. The friend met the potential Speakers while working in Mayfield Library in Newcastle, Australia while they were meeting with a language group to support endangered aboriginal languages in Australia. Brief casual conversation and contact only. The artist was given their phone number and email by the friend. Multiple attempts at contact failed to yield results.Failure Hypothesis: the social connection was too weak to get a positive response to the project.